Mamphela Ramphele / Politics

The Importance of Black Consciousness

Mamphela Ramphele: A Passion for Freedom

Mamphela Ramphele is a figurehead of modern South Africa and instrumental in creating the ideology of Black Consciousness with her partner, Steve Biko. Following the Soweto uprising in 1976 she was detained without trial, released after five months and soon afterwards was served with an apartheid banning order. 

Publishing at the end of the month, A Passion for Freedom is Mamphela Ramphele’s acclaimed autobiography. In this extract, Ramphele looks at why Black Consciousness, providing a protective armour against exploitation, is and remains important.

It is interesting how many South Africans have failed to appreciate the importance of Black Consciousness in the historical struggle for justice in South Africa. The largest group of people in this category are those liberal white English-speaking South Africans who felt rejected by Black Consciousness activists in the 1970s. For them this was a slap in the face which they found hard to take. People like Dr Beyers Naudé, having experienced the humiliation of Afrikaners under English rule, had little difficulty in understanding and supporting the need for blacks to redefine themselves and their aspirations.

In contrast, Alan Paton died without overcoming his anger at being ‘excluded’ from the struggle by the Black Consciousness Movement. One also detects the same confusion in Nadine Gordimer’s musings about her relief at ‘the re-emergence of non-racial politics’ in the 1980s. What Nadine and others do not appreciate is the importance of the positive identity and self-confidence which Black Consciousness instilled in blacks, and its role in shaping the politics of the 1970s, as well as laying the foundations of the defiance politics of the 1980s. Mongane Serote has aptly noted that the Black Consciousness Movement breathed oxygen into the moribund ANC (African National Congress) operations in exile, particularly its armed struggle, which benefited from the young militants who had been nurtured by the BCM. One need only look at those who have played a significant role in both the BCM and the ANC to see the connection – Cheryl Carolus, Jay Naidoo, Frank Chikane, Cyril Ramaphosa, Murphy Morobe, Mosiuoa ‘Terror’ Lekota and Thenjiwe Mtintso, to name but a few.

The second group of South Africans who reject the importance of Black Consciousness comprises some of the older generation of ANC leaders, particularly those connected to the South African Communist Party. The late Mr Govan Mbeki, for example, was quoted in the New York Times of 12 February 1994 as saying that whilst performing his duties on Robben Island as a political educator during his imprisonment there, he had had to confront young political prisoners from the BCM tradition with the meaninglessness of their talk about ‘blackness’ and move them to a higher level of appreciating the importance of class analysis. The fact is that those young activists needed to go through an understanding of racism in South Africa to be able to integrate it with class analysis.

Those who grew up as members of a proud peasant class in the Eastern Cape, have never had to doubt their own worth as human beings in spite of the racism around them. But for those young blacks growing up in the squalid townships of the 1960s, it was much more difficult not to have self-doubt. A Black Consciousness perspective was essential for these young blacks growing up in a racist country.

The same imperative applies to women, who have to integrate an understanding of their ‘womanhood’ in a sexist society in order that they may be able to develop an appreciation of the dynamics of race, class and gender as these impinge on their lives. Belonging to exclusive women’s organisations is a necessary step in the process of liberation and personal growth for most women. By the same token, worker consciousness, an important part of the protective armour against exploitation, is part of the same social reality.

One of the enormous benefits of having been steeled in the furnaces of Black Consciousness activism is that I have been liberated psychologically. I feel I belong in any part of my country, and I treat any major public institution in my society as part of my heritage. I do not have to apologise for being there for a legitimate purpose. ■

Image shows Mamphela Ramphele making a point at the first meeting of the Black People’s Convention held in Hammanskraal in 1972.
A Passion for FreedomMamphela Ramphele has been a student activist, a medical doctor, a community development activist, a researcher, a university executive, a global public servant and is now an active citizen in both the public and private sectors. A Passion for Freedom is out later this month.
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